Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Behind the Art: Backlighting

This week, in keeping with the idea that the year 2010 is "outward bound", I featured a print of my marine painting "Outward Bound", which depicts a four-masted schooner sailing away into the picture.

Probably the most striking aspect of this painting is the backlighting which gives the calm sea a special sparkle.  Along the starboard side (right side) of the schooner, the hull is reflecting light along it, contrasting with the deep shade of the stern.

Having the stern in deep shade, really accentuates the highlighted reflection on the water seen past the schooner on port side (left)

In both illustrations, note the importance of considering how the light is striking the lightly rippled water.  The smoother water in the wake of the schooner is light, reflecting the backlighting, but not highlighted like the parts of the wavelets that act like little mirrors.  Backlighting gives more contrast in the parts of the wave, with the part sloped toward you that allows you to look into the wave being much darker.  Also, note that the wavelets between you and the schooner alternately reflect the dark colour of the stern and the canvas of the large sail.  Getting the reflections right on water is critical to the mood of a marine painting.  And backlighting gives great effects to work with in creating this mood.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Outward Bound

In the waning days of December, the year 2010 is, indeed, outward bound.  So it seemed reasonable this week to feature a print of a painting of the same title "Outward Bound".

Schooners were the workhorses of trade a hundred years ago.  With their sails aligned fore and aft, along the hull, schooners needed less crew than square rigged ships.  Four-masted schooners, with large wooden hulls, carried bulk cargoes cheaply to markets abroad, but delivery time depended on fair winds.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Behind Christmas 1885

This week I featured a print of a painting entitled “Christmas Morning 1885”.  At first glance, it would appear to have very little to do with Christmas: no snow, no fir trees, no coloured lights or ornaments, no Nativity scene, nothing that we would associate with Christmas. So why the title?

Jordan O’Brien approached me with an interesting commission: to paint the event experienced by an ancestor in 1885, Captain Thomas Russell O’Brien, of Pictou, Nova Scotia: a harrowing experience in a cyclone in the Indian Ocean in 1885.  Jordan had a photograph of a painting of his barque, the William H. McNeil, registered in Pictou.  He also had Captain O’Brien’s ship’s log.

I read through the log and the most vividly described entry was on the morning of December 25, Christmas morning.  All vital information was well documented: the wind direction, time, ship’s heading, and general sea and weather conditions.  This gave me a good idea of how the light should be in the painting, the direction of the waves and the heading of the ship in relation to these.  I wanted to capture the power of cyclone sea conditions: the high winds blow the tops off the heavy seas and throw windblown spray across the waves.  The sea is a wild place in a cyclone.

Captain O’Brien meticulously documented which sails his crew were able to furl before facing the worst of the wind, and which sails were blown to tatters in the cyclone.  These details I recorded in the painting of the ship’s rigging.

Certainly, the deck of the William H. McNeill would have been a wild place in that Indian Ocean cyclone, drenched with windblown spray, the storm force wind screaming through the rigging, the creaking and straining of the wooden hull inaudible in the roar of the sea.

As I painted the picture, thinking about the entries made in the log, I found myself wondering about the captain and crew, their thoughts on the Christmas morning, as they longed for the warmth and comfort of their snug homes half a world away, as they thought about Christmas and wondered how their wives and children and relatives were all doing.  Certainly Christmas at sea could never be like Christmas in your own home, especially in a cyclone in the Indian Ocean.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Morning 1885

Christmas morning, 1885, brought with it a severe cyclone in the Indian Ocean.  The Pictou barque William H. McNeil, Captain Thomas Russell O’Brien, with a cargo of sugar from the Philippines for New York, was caught in the storm. Some sails were in tatters, others the crew managed to furl, as Captain O’Brien kept his vessel into the wind to try to ride out the fierce cyclone.  After surviving the storm, she limped into Mauritius.

This week, as we lead up to Christmas, I feature a print of the painting of this event, a painting commissioned by an O’Brien of today related to the sea captain of 1885.  He had the ship’s log which he allowed me to read through to get a sense of what was happening to the ship to be able to render the events of 125 years ago as faithfully as possible.

Reading through the log, the descriptions of the morning of December 25, 1885, had sufficient detail regarding winds, ship’s course, which sails were successfully furled, and which sails were in tatters, so much information that one could really visualize what the scene might have looked like. It was an interesting project and this print shares the results with those who love the lore of the sea.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Behind the Art: Rocky Shore

In featuring a lighthouse in the snow, I would suppose that most would expect the snow to be featured "behind the art".  But I have talked about snow in an earlier blog, so I looked at the reproduction of this lighthouse painting to consider something different.  Here we have waves on a steep rocky shore, and I think there is something to be seen that many painters of seascapes might miss.

We are used to seeing waves come rolling in on beaches and shallow shores.  There we expect to see big breakers roll in, or even perhaps small waves.  As the wave rolls in and the depth of water becomes gradually shallower, the wave sharpens and eventually tumbles over itself in a breaker.  In this painting we have a very different situation.  The rocky shore rises up very abruptly from deep water.  If we look at the sea as it crashes against the shore, we note there is no rolling wave as you would see on a beach.

On a beach, the shallow water forces the wave to peak and break, in deep water, the wave can travel right in against the rock face without having to peak like a breaker on a beach.  The wave expends its energy against the rocky wall, piles up on the rock and tumbles back into the sea.  If you look closely, you can see the streamlets of water pouring back into the sea as the wave dropped away from the rock.  So there is a lot of foam and turbulence right against the rock, but without the clearly defined waves rolling in that you see on a beach.

So, if you are painting a seascape against a steep rocky shore, make sure your waves are planned and painted to be consistent with what happens in the real sea; the waves are not at all the same as waves rolling in on a beach, and I think  this painting helps to illustrate that.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Swallowtail Snow

Last week, when we had a light blanket of snow on the ground and things looked quite wintry, I debated featuring this print of one of my winter paintings of Swallowtail light.  But I thought I would wait another week, more into winter, to feature the snow scene.

Then we had yesterday’s massive rain, which took away every hint of snow from the Grand Manan ground.  So now I am featuring a snow scene when everything around me on the Island really looks more like October.  Ah well; here we are: Swallowtail Snow, a cold and wintry print to let you dream about snow, even when there is none to be seen.

Under a blanket of snow, Swallowtail Light, at the northeast end of Grand Manan Island, sends out its faithful beam of light to aid mariners on the icy Atlantic.  Braced against frigid winter winds, Swallowtail holds promise for cold and tired fishermen of a safe harbour and warm homes nearby while cold, windblown waves incessantly batter the aged rocks of the Swallowtail.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Behind the Art: Rough Sea

Quite often rough weather is a contributing factor in a ship coming to grief either on the rocks or out at sea.  So it is reasonable to depict shipwrecks in a setting of rough, windblown waves. Such is the painting of the wreck of the steamship “Kings County”.

In a boisterous sea, it goes without saying that there is a lot more foam blowing out on the tops of the waves.  So the blue in the water is paler, especially as you look out across it, with more whitish foam scudding across in the wind.

In the close-up of the area between the ship and the shore, you may notice that the waves look more irregular and frantic.  What we have here is the reflection of waves back and forth between the ship and shore.  So the waves do not have the regularity of breakers coming into shore from outside, nor the measured balance of waves offshore either.

Waves are both simple and complex. They are simple in that there is a balance between crests and troughs, if you were to flatten the crests and build up the troughs the resulting water would be level.  But on this simplicity we have the complex harmonics of wavelets on waves, which make the waves “rough”.  And to add further complexity, when a waves reaches too sharp a peak it falls over, giving us a “breaker”.  So when you add all this complexity to waves, you have a rough sea. Yet even in a rough sea, we need to feel that there is an overall balance to be believable.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Shipwreck "Kings County"

This week I am veering off in a different direction in the featured print.  What I have depicted here is the scene that would have greeted a person on the morning of December 11, 1936, looking over the cliffs a short distance up shore from Tiner’s Point, below Lorneville, west of Saint John (not far from where the Coleson Cove generating station was built a few years ago).

The steamship “Kings County” struck this rugged coast at 2 a.m. on December 11, 1936, in strong winds and a rough sea.  As soon as she struck the rocky bottom, a jagged hole was torn in the steel hull.  The crew quickly scrambled up on deck, but it was far too rough to launch a lifeboat.  The ship was settling deeper into the water; the situation looked hopeless.

Then, almost before anyone knew what was happening, a sturdy young man stripped to his seaman’s pants, tied a rope around his waist and plunged into the icy and turbulent Bay of Fundy. It was only a hundred feet to shore, but after five minutes he had covered barely half the distance.  With the light of the ship trained on his struggle and all sound drowned out by the roar of the heavy surf, all eyes were on the young seaman.  After ten minutes, they thought he couldn’t succeed, especially in the icy December Bay of Fundy.

He finally reached shore, was thrown back by a wave, caught the rocks and was flung back again.  As the waves lifted and dropped him, he was bumped and slammed against the rocks.  But he finally won and managed to scramble up beyond the reach of the breakers.  The ship’s searchlight showed him struggling up the rocks dragging his rope as he went.  They saw him tie the rope to a big boulder.  A collective cheer went up as he waved to tell them that the line was secure.

Settling deeper into the water, with surf and waves splashing across the deck, they quickly tightened the rope and secured it to the ship.  The more able of the crew set out hand over hand along the rope.  Then the rest came in a breeches buoy, made from a stool cradled in ropes suspended from the taut line.  Finally, with the captain being the last to leave the ship, all had made it safely to shore.

They were lost and soaked in the driving rain, but eventually found a woods road and made it to Lorneville where they were received by the hospitable folks there in their homes.

The young Norwegian was an instant hero.  Herold Hansen, whose brave swim had saved the lives of thirty-six men, was carried on the shoulders of the others when they arrived in Saint John.  They cheered him as he posed reluctantly for a cameraman. News of the wreck spread quickly and the curious by the score made their way through the woods to the cliff to see the wrecked ship.  And my painting from which this print is reproduced is my attempt to illustrate what they might have seen there.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Behind the Art: Black

At the top of the tower of West Quoddy Head lighthouse is the lantern and just below that is the “watch room” or “service room”, which houses the machinery for the light and is the room in which light servicing is done by the keeper.  This room is in a cylindrical iron structure, painted black.

All this brings me to the interesting challenge of painting “black”.  As I mentioned before, I do not use black paint to paint black.

This may sound ridiculous until you really look at things we suppose are “black”.  If you think about what black really is, then you realize that if you can see it, it is not really black.

Black is an absence of light.  Whenever we depict something, we have to be able to see it.  And to see it we need light.  And if it can reflect light, it is not totally black.

The colour of an object is the colour reflected from it.  The red paint on the lighthouse absorbs green, blue, yellow, all the colours of the spectrum except red, which it reflects, giving it the colour red.  What we have in black paint is a paint that absorbs all colours in the spectrum equally.

Therefore, I use all three primary colours to paint black.  Since we can see the black iron of the watch room on the lighthouse, it must be reflecting light.  So on the brighter, sunlit side of the tower, the “black” iron reflects more light, of the more predominantly orange-yellow part of bright sunlight. So the “black” is lighter, with a hint of orange-yellow.  On the shady side, the “black” iron still reflects light, but less light, and the shade is the absence of orange-yellow of sunlight and that is bluish-purple.  So the “black” there is shaded accordingly.

And so, as I have said, black isn’t really black; it is red, blue and yellow mixed together to reflect light according to the light striking the thing that we think of as “black”.